Musical artistry is rewarding, though not rewarded


The Tony Awards for best musical and best score have always represented a tug of war between complacency and boldness. Meredith Willson's score for "The Music Man" was chosen over the more ambitious "West Side Story" in 1958. Stephen Sondheim's shimmering music for "Sunday in the Park With George" lost out in 1984 to Jerry Herman's old-fashioned tunes for "La Cage aux Folles."

And in a fit of Broadway nostalgia last June, the voters chose as best score "The Will Rogers Follies," a musically formulaic slice of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle, over "The Secret Garden," whose gently innovative folk-pop score offers up universal truths about the survival of the spirit.

Columbia Records has since released original cast albums of both "The Will Rogers Follies" and "The Secret Garden," and all anyone has to do is compare the two to realize that artistic justice was again not served by the Tonys.

"The Secret Garden" (48817; CD and cassette) has a quietly majestic score by Lucy Simon (music) and Marsha Norman (lyrics), two newcomers to the Broadway musical stage. The story, adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's novel, is a succession of allusive fragments that evoke the psychological light and shadows in a semi-mythical childhood world of Edwardian England.

Ms. Simon's music, rather like Mr. Sondheim's score for "Into the Woods," aspires to a kind of primal tunefulness, with melodies that suggest a refinement of children's singsong, but deepened by Michael Kosarin's exquisitely layered orchestrations.

"I Heard Someone Crying" and "The Girl I Mean to Be," both sung by Mary (Daisy Eagan), the orphan girl who brings life and hope to her uncle's death-haunted manor, resonate magically with the ditties of one's childhood. Songs for grown-up characters also have a childlike openness and simplicity, since the events are seen primarily through Mary's eyes.

The most important ballad, "Come to My Garden," is a sweetly consoling lullaby with something of the flavor of an Anglican hymn. Like the rest of the score, it captures a sense of timelessness -- with just a flavoring of period and place to suggest an exotic storybook world set in an earlier time.

"The Will Rogers Follies" (48606; CD and cassette) also looks to the past -- the 1920s and '30s and the brassy glitter of the Ziegfeld Follies -- but the score, by the Broadway veterans Cy Coleman (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics), conveys none of the passion of "The Secret Garden." There is a fine line between songs that pay homage to vintage styles and those that sound like hackneyed retreads, and too much of the time the melodies and lyrics of "The Will Rogers Follies" fall on the wrong side of that line.

In fairness, it should be remembered that the Ziegfeld Follies always had more to do with spectacle than with musical and literary subtlety. And true to that tradition, Tommy Tune, the director and choreographer of "The Will Rogers Follies," has created several zippy production numbers for synchronized legs, smiles and tapping feet.

But even though most of the songs on the original cast album are cliches, they show a consistently canny level of craft. Billy Byers's arrangements skillfully interpolate such period touches as barbershop quartets and echoes of Dixieland jazz, along with country-and-western instrumentation that points up the background of the Oklahoma-born title character.

Keith Carradine's performance of "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," the sappy-friendly folk ballad based on one of Rogers' most famous pronouncements, is so winning that, against all logic, it rings true.

Mr. Carradine's easygoing charm, however, cannot completely dispel a sense that "The Will Rogers Follies" is at heart an exercise in folksy patriotism. The songs portray Rogers as a folk hero of unalloyed perfection, worshiped uncritically by the world ("Will-a-Mania"), by his adoring children ("The Big Time") and his often neglected wife ("My Big Mistake").

With barely a hint of criticism or irony, the songs, taken together, portray a vision of American virtue in which frontier values, show-business glory and patriotic razzmatazz join in a smug, empty-headed pageant of national self-congratulations.

The dearth of ideas and vision in the music of "The Will Rogers Follies" becomes more glaring when compared to a recent recording of another show that examines American values, "Strike Up the Band." The groundbreaking 1927 Gershwin musical has finally been given its first complete recording on Elektra/Nonesuch/Roxbury (79273-2; two CDs and cassettes).

The first of three satirical operettas with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, "Strike Up the Band" was a critical hit when it opened in Philadelphia. But the antiwar satire of George S. Kaufman's absurdist book was too strong for the public, and the show closed before reaching New York. In 1930, a heavily revised version -- softened, and with a new book by Morie Ryskind -- opened on Broadway and was a commercial success.

The 1927 version tells the wacky, comic story of a wealthy cheese manufacturer who finances a war against Switzerland over restrictive tariffs. The madcap plot offers sharp criticism of the relationship between big business and government, and details the public's susceptibility to war fever.

In "Strike Up the Band," war is officially declared after Switzerland sends a letter in which America is spelled with a small "a." Eventually the Americans entrap the Swiss Army with a yodeling trick.

After the show closed, much of the 1927 version of the score was lost. Its reconstruction, overseen by Tommy Krasker, was made possible by the discovery of some material in a Secaucus, N.J., warehouse.

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